Carceral Politics are Local too: Racial geography and prisoner reentry in the USA

This guest post comes from Reuben Jonathan Miller, who is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Loyola University Chicago. He studies the prisoner reentry experiences of Black and Latino men in the U.S. His work is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the American Society of Criminology.

Some scholarly attention has been given to the historic increase in the U.S. prison population, the selective targeting of poor Black (and Latino) men, and the historic prison expansion project, with more prisons being built in the last three decades than in the entire history of the country. Scholars and activists alike have long attributed this “race to incarcerate” to backlash from the civil rights movement, “law and order” politics, and the unlikely agreement of policy makers and  academics that rehabilitation has been “utterly abandoned.” These “truths” about mass (or hyper) incarceration have been taken for granted for nearly two decades. I argue, however, that there’s more to this story. Rehabilitation did not die in the U.S., the U.S. has simply changed the way it rehabilitates, increasing the already long reach of the penal state into the lives of the urban poor.

Rehabilitation, like all social services, has been privatized and outsourced, moving outside prison walls and into the church basements and therapy rooms of the nonprofit, prisoner reentry organizations that operate within low income inner city neighborhoods. Put differently, the criminal justice system now contracts rehabilitation to publicly funded, private, nonprofit organizations operating within the very inner city neighborhoods from which poor Black and Latino residents are over policed, over arrested, and to which they overwhelmingly return, by the droves. While there has been a deluge of impact studies measuring the efficacy of these organizations, we don’t know much about how these programs operate, or the role they play in the communities they serve. What we do know is that both mass incarceration and prisoner rehabilitation have a distinctly racial geography.

Take Chicago, IL as a case study. Illinois has a 1:1 ratio of inmates admitted and discharged each year, over half (54% of the over 35,000 discharged annually) return to just six of 77 Chicago community areas; all six are racially segregated with poverty, crime, and unemployment rates triple the national average. Unsurprisingly, just four of these neighborhoods, each with African Americans representing 60 to 80 percent of their total populations, house 2/3 of all known reentry organizations in the city.

This decidedly racial geography becomes even more important when considering what reentry organizations do. Prior to the rise of the “what works movement,” and the full throated press of law and order policies, rehabilitation, at least in theory, focused on the needs of prisoners, and attempted to address the risks they would encounter in their attempts to desist from crime. Although resources were scarce, some prisoners could access vocational training, work release programs, substance abuse treatment and education, all of which were considered uncontroversial. In recent years these individually tailored programs and efforts by the state to formally connect prisoners to the worlds of work have been replaced by “treatment groups” led by social service workers and “work readiness training,” alternately called “workforce development; a series of services designed to foster the “soft skills” and “life skills” necessary to secure employment. This seems innocuous and even helpful on its surface.  Criminologists and policy makers, following a vigorous debate around the “urban underclass” designed programs based on the assumption that former prisoners lack the social and emotional skills needed to care for themselves. In response, education, job training and individualized substance abuse counseling have been replaced by deficits based self help groups. This shift in programmatic offering is curious considering it occurs at the same time the prison “blackened.” In just under 30 years the U.S. prison population went from being nearly 2/3 white to 2/3 nonwhite.

So what does it mean for policing, incarceration, and even prisoner rehabilitation to overwhelmingly take place in low income communities of color? What’s really at stake when rehabilitative services focus on the psychological and emotional dispositions of former prisoners, envisioned as Black and Latino men in need of motivation and higher self esteem? Does any of it matter if former prisoners can’t get jobs?  I think these questions are important. It is my firm belief that it’s not enough to follow the evidence base in practice without ever questioning the evidence base. By doing so, perhaps we can begin a new conversation about prisoner rehabilitation.


One thought on “Carceral Politics are Local too: Racial geography and prisoner reentry in the USA”

  1. brilliant post. Welcome to the blog Reuben. Great to have you on board. And send more news from Chicago. I miss it.


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